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What is a Christian? (long article)

An important question Wales is now acknowledged to be an increasingly secular and materialistic country. Yet in spite of that, more than half of its population still say that they are Christians. Having said that, less than ten per cent attend any Christian place of worship on Sunday, be that chapel or church. Therefore, this raises the question as to what is meant when half of the population call themselves Christians. How do they understand the word “Christian” and why do they describe themselves as Christians? It is obvious that there is some ambiguity or lack of clarity.

This came to light in quite a public way when David Cameron, who was Prime Minister at the time, declared that Britain is a Christian country. This caused quite a stir, with atheists writing to the leading newspapers to complain about this and others leaping to defend the Prime Minister. But one thing that became apparent from this whole discussion was that the word “Christian” is used in different ways by different people. There is obviously great confusion when seeking to answer the question: What is a Christian?

In addition to this, we are told that we live in a multi-faith society, but there is very little understanding as regards the difference between one religion and another.

58% of people said that they were Christians in the last census (2011).

The popular opinion is that all religions are similar to each other - we are all climbing the same mountain to seek God, but do so by following different paths. So what in fact is a Christian?

Different answers

The word “Christian” was a nickname that was first used in the city of Antioch about 2000 years ago. It should be fairly obvious that being a Christian is related to Jesus Christ. But the crucial question is this - what is the connection between Christ and the Christian? For the people in Antioch, Christians were disciples or close followers of Jesus Christ. But if you were to ask those who claim to be Christians today, what is a Christian, there would be different answers to that question.

  1. Many would answer by saying that they belong to a country with a Christian tradition and culture. They certainly don’t belong to the other religions which now surround us. For many in England, the relationship with the state church, which is of course Christian, is important. That is the way that many use the word Christian.

  2. Others would say that more than that is needed to be a Christian. A Christian is a person who seeks to follow the example of the life of Jesus Christ. Christ is seen as a good man who went around doing good, and who was kind and helpful. A Christian is a person who seeks to imitate Jesus Christ in this way.

  3. Yet others say: But surely we also need to accept the teaching of Jesus Christ in order to be a Christian? It’s possible for someone of another faith, or even someone who has no religion, to do good. Doesn’t being a Christian mean accepting what Jesus Christ taught about God and about man?

  4. But no, others say. If we accept that he is the son of God, doesn’t that mean that we should worship him? Wouldn’t this mean making some attempt to meet with others who believe the same thing, in order to worship together in a chapel or church?

Although the four answers sound different to each other, there is a similarity. Their whole emphasis is on what we do: Follow culture, follow example, follow a teaching or go to worship. It is what we do that counts. But in the pages of the Bible, we have a different view of things.

“To understand what a Christian is, we need to consider the words of Jesus and those who were with him.”

One who spent time in the company of Jesus Christ as one of his main disciples, for over three years, was Peter. After Jesus left the world, Peter wrote letters to the new Christians to try to encourage them and to teach them what it is like to be a Christian. What is striking is his emphasis, not on what a person must do to become a Christian, but rather what Jesus had to do first.

And what did Jesus have to do? Peter mentions this three times in the first chapter of his first letter (1 Peter 1). A Christian, he says, is a person who has known the “sprinkling by his blood” that is the blood of Jesus Christ. Then he describes the Christian as one who has been redeemed “with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect”. He then goes on to mention “the sufferings of Christ…that would follow.” Peter tells us very clearly that there is a definite link between being a Christian and the fact that Jesus Christ suffered. Therefore we need to know and understand something about that suffering in order to understand what a Christian is.

The suffering of Christ

We should not be surprised by the emphasis on the suffering of Christ. After all, the cross has been a major symbol of Christianity throughout the centuries. Yet it is surprising how easily we lose sight of this today. When we turn to the Bible, Christ’s suffering is completely central. Peter draws our attention to this by demonstrating how even the prophets mentioned this suffering, centuries before the birth of Jesus: “trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow”. (1Peter 1:11) In fact, at the beginning of the Bible we learn that Jesus will have to suffer so that God can save humankind from their rebellion and its consequences. God tells the devil, in the form of a serpent, “he will crush your head and you will strike his heel”. (Genesis 3.15) The one who will crush the head of the devil is Jesus Christ, and although he will gain forgiveness for his people, this will mean suffering for him (his heel).

We see the same thing in the book of the prophet Isaiah where he describes the Messiah (namely Jesus) as a suffering servant: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

The Bible teaches that the relationship between God and humankind was broken when Adam and Eve disobeyed him and listened to the devil (the angel of evil). This is an historical event which took place in the Garden of Eden when the devil took upon himself the form of a snake. We see the consequences of this today.

And when we look at the life of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, we cannot but see his life as a “crescendo” of suffering.

  1. There was an element of suffering in the fact that Jesus came to this world at all: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:8). The Bible teaches that Jesus, who was God, became a man and so this was restricting – the restricting of the Godhead to become a human being; one who is present everywhere restricting himself to one geographical location; one who was all-powerful restricting himself to the strength of a human body; one who was all-knowing restricting himself to being taught as a child. Then, in addition to that, the pain that he would know, being perfect, having to live in a world full of sin and evil. It is difficult for us to imagine this, but there was a great element of suffering in this.

  2. Early on, Christ knew difficult experiences. Whilst he was a baby in the womb, Mary, his mother, had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. That was not an easy journey in those days for a pregnant woman and Mary certainly would have suffered. According to modern medicine, the baby in the womb would also have suffered with the mother in this experience. Then before he was two years of age, he had to flee to Egypt with his parents as refugees because of King Herod’s threat to kill every child under two years of age. “So he (Joseph) got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt” (Matthew 2:14). Imagine the journey through the Sinai desert and all the pain that would cause to a young child.

  3. During his life he also had to face all the experiences of life which often involve an element of suffering such as hunger, thirst, homelessness and sadness. He experienced sadness, for instance, when he heard of the death of his friend Lazarus. By the time he arrived, the sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha, were already mourning and when Jesus went to Mary we read: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. (John 11:33-35) We see clearly that he suffered the same experiences in life which we often experience.

  4. He also had to face opposition and persecution by the religious institution of his day because he claimed to be the Son of God. Although he came to the nation which had experienced so much goodness from God, they were not ready to receive him. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11). The pain and suffering which that caused him is to be seen when he wept for Jerusalem (the main city) as he approached it before his crucifixion. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ”If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognise the time of God’s coming to you,” (Luke 19:41-44) These words became true, tragically so, in 70 A.D with the invasion of the Romans.

  5. He was constantly under attack by the devil. He was tempted in the wilderness, at the beginning of his ministry, for forty days. “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 4:1) Later on, he came face to face with evil spirits who challenged him. We read of one such occasion in the synagogue in Capernaum “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are- the Holy One of God!” “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” (Mark 1:23-25)

  6. We also see him suffering, having to live his life with the fore knowledge of his death, or to be more precise, his murder. When he spoke on three different occasions about going up to Jerusalem, he referred to the fact that he was going to be killed “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed” (Matthew 16: 21) We are probably glad that we don’t know how we will die but he did. This reaches a pinnacle in the garden of Gethsemane where we see him praying to his father concerning what is ahead of him – the experience is so agonizing that he sweats drops of blood. This condition is recognized today by medics as one caused by terrible strain. “He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:41-44)

  7. He is then betrayed by his friend; imprisoned, cross-examined and abused by Roman soldiers. He is spat upon and mocked. A crown of thorns is placed on his head. He is made to carry a wooden cross through the city. He is nailed to the cross and hangs there. He is thirsty and suffers cruel mocking and dies in the most public and awful way. On top of all that, he has to deal with the failure of his disciples to stay with him. Even Peter denied knowing him.

  8. Lastly, we have the three cries from the cross as he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Here Jesus experiences the isolation of being rejected by his heavenly Father. This is the climax of his suffering, where the perfect and close relationship between him and his Father is shattered. As one author said - Jesus was struck by his Father’s sword.

Such was the suffering of Jesus Christ.

What does this mean?

The suffering of Christ raises huge questions about some of the ideas concerning what is a Christian today.

  • If a Christian is a person who belongs to, or follows a particular culture, why did Christ have to suffer like this?

  • If being a Christian means following the example of Jesus Christ, then why the suffering?

  • If accepting the teaching of Jesus Christ means being a Christian, then why did Jesus have to die?

  • If going to chapel or church every now and then means being a Christian, then why did Jesus have to suffer at all?

These are the questions that face everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian – this is also the truth which demands a response from each one of us.

We cannot understand what is a Christian without understanding the suffering of Jesus – Jesus makes this very plain to us. We see Jesus talking about his suffering in the last supper, before his death, where he breaks the bread and says to his disciples: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

It is obvious that Jesus sees his death and suffering as more than an example to follow.

Why did Jesus have to suffer?

We can do no better than allow Jesus to answer that question for us. How did he view things? How did he understand the nature of his work? How did he understand his suffering and death?

Here are his words:

“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”(Luke 19:10)

Elsewhere he states that he has come “to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Jesus states that he did not come to show people the way to be saved, but to achieve it for them.

Why was this necessary?

Jesus did not come to show people the way to God but to be the way to God.

By his suffering he became a bridge between us and God. Because of our wickedness and our sinful nature, each one of us is corrupt. It is this corruption that God loathes and is a barrier between God and people. That is why we are lost and in rebellion against God.

We are not in a relationship with God because he is perfect and we are evil. Every one of us has broken his perfect law and we see the effects of this today in the world and in our own lives.

It is this sin that stops us from fulfilling the most important thing- being in a right relationship with God. But also, it is this sin that will reap its reward one day, because “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The death of the body and everlasting punishment faces each person who has broken God’s law but Jesus came to save us from all of this.

It is not an example to follow which we need – we could never follow the example of Jesus. We needed someone to take our punishment instead of us.

This is no small thing to achieve – it is huge – so much so that it took the shedding of blood to achieve it. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness and God’s justice demands this. In order to seek to show the seriousness of sin in the days of the Old Testament, God established an order whereby costly sacrifices were made to obtain forgiveness for sin. The sacrifices in the Old Testament were but a shadow to instruct and prepare for the great sacrifice that was yet to come – the Son of God, Jesus Christ himself, who would be that sacrifice.

There is something very real about the way God dealt with our rebellion. It necessitated having a real person to be a real sacrifice for a real problem which we all have.

This is what a man called John declared when Christ came to him to be baptized: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) The one who will fulfil the true sacrifice has come - and here he is. It was in order to save us that Jesus Christ had to suffer and sacrifice his life for us on the cross. That was the price for saving us. “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.” (1 Peter 1:18-19) Sacrifice meant that lambs and animals were slaughtered. By this means, God wanted to impress upon the minds of the Jews how serious sin was and that it was not a small matter to forgive it.

What is our response?

How should we respond to all this? We can be helped by looking at the way the people of Wales have responded in verse in the past, such as some of our hymn writers:

Here is love, vast as the ocean, Lovingkindness as the flood, When the Prince of life our ransom, Shed for us His precious blood. Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise? He can never be forgotten Throughout heaven’s eternal days.

Here the hymn writer brings to mind the suffering of Christ on the cross and the response that this should bring: “Who His love will not remember? Who can cease to sing His praise?”

We see a similar response by one of the criminals who was crucified with Jesus. As he realises that he is being justly punished for his wickedness he casts himself on the mercy of Jesus:

“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:39-42)

Note the first step is not that someone does something to become a Christian. Rather something happens to them, as they realise and understand why Jesus died for them.

They do nothing but something happens to them.

To become a Christian, a person needs to reach the point where he or she acknowledges their need and realises that Jesus has done something amazing for them. They acknowledge that they cannot save themselves or pay the price for their wrongdoing to God. When they come to realise their sinful nature, they need to acknowledge that Jesus Christ has done everything to ensure that forgiveness is available. They cast themselves on his mercy –“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”. They are repentant, that is they are sorry for their failure and desire to be different. They believe in Jesus Christ, the son of God. They become disciples who desire to worship and serve him.

The Christian does not follow Jesus in order to be forgiven – rather he follows Jesus because he has been forgiven.

Peter describes the Christian like this: “Though you have not seen him (Jesus), you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1: 8-9)

Note the emphasis on looking at Jesus and loving him.

Bowing, Believing, Serving

As we have seen, the question is not what we have to do to be Christians but primarily what Jesus himself had to do for us. Our response is to acknowledge our guilt, turn and reach out in faith to Jesus.

Doesn’t this make sense of Christ’s suffering? Therefore we can say that a Christian is a person who has bowed to God, thanking him for sending Jesus Christ into the world to suffer and die for him. He is sorry for his past when he did not believe and gives the rest of his life to serve Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Gwynn Williams

"For years I tried to win the favour of God. I had no assurance that God accepted me and he seemed so far away. I knew that God was real but I also knew that my life wasn’t good enough. Then all became clear. I saw that Jesus had lived the life that I couldn’t live and that he had suffered and died instead of me. For the first time I spoke to Jesus – just a simple and honest prayer confessing my failure and asking for forgiveness. He has changed my life completely- I now have a relationship with God, the one who created me. And all of that is because of what Jesus did for me." - Steffan, Christian, Bangor


  1. What are the dangers of turning to tradition or culture to find out what is the teaching of a real person like Jesus?

  2. Have we, in Wales, been guilty of trying to “change” the message of Jesus?

  3. In which ways did Jesus suffer?

  4. Jesus obviously believed that there was a reason for his suffering – what was this?

  5. Would you describe the world today as being good or bad?

  6. “All wickedness should be punished” – what is your opinion about this statement?

  7. What effect would coming to know your creator have on you?

  8. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 in the Bible where Paul describes what happens to a person when he becomes a Christian. Use this passage and the verses of this book to try to explain what a Christian is in your own words.

  9. How can we find out whether Jesus’ words are true or not?

If you would like further help or would like to discuss anything which you have read in this article please contact us

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